A Structural Engineer’s Toolbox

How does a structural engineer work well? The same way as any other professional: by using the right tools. Here are the basics in my toolbox:

  • Pencil and paper – start here, always. You should be able to explain a design via a hand sketch and brief calculations before running to the computer. For a recent long-span truss installed in an existing building, the proof of concept filled just one sheet of paper. I’ve found that having a really good pencil and crisp paper makes it much more satisfying to put graphite on wood pulp.
  • Calculator – I take for granted how easy it is to outsource the grunt work of basic math. I highly recommend using one that is allowed on the SE exam. I switched from a graphing calculator to the TI-30X IIS a year before I took the SE, fully expecting to switch back. I never did and am still happily using this simple but powerful model every day.
  • Triangle and scale – these simple drafting tools allow you to create much better hand sketches and also give you credibility with the older engineers. You can’t draw pretty lines – you’re not an architect – so use the triangle.
  • Codes – these seem to be behaving in the manner of rabbits, with new editions coming out before you’ve even seen the previous one. But they are indispensable to our work, as they both provide the minimum requirements and in many cases explain how to do the design. The steel manual is the clearest of all the codes and contains excellent design aids and examples. For concrete, I use the PCA Notes on ACI 318 alongside the code.
  • Excel – the Swiss Army knife of calculations. I use Excel 2010 for any number-crunching that involves using the same equation more than once. Tables changed my life; I can work only in the first row of a table without a thought of the thousands of rows below.
  • MathCAD – Excel may be powerful, but it has two very significant drawbacks: it is hard to back-check (impossible when printed to paper) and it is not savvy with units. Most of my linear calculations are done in MathCAD 15, which does both the math and the unit conversion while displaying everything in the same form as a hand calc. The unit awareness is particularly useful when working on international projects, as results can be shown both in the native units (say kN-m) and more familiar units (kip-feet).
  • AutoCAD – although my office is using Revit Structure to produce drawings, I use AutoCAD 2012 every day for many tasks: sketching details, measuring dimensions in an architectural drawing, overlaying two drawings for coordination, or building a file to import to the analysis model. It will serve you well to develop skill in a 2D drafting program, at least for the foreseeable future.
  • 3D analysis program – every engineer should have a go-to analysis software. Mine is ETABS, which I’ve used in the design of everything from high-rise buildings to aluminum trusses. I know the program inside and out, including what it should not be asked to do. Pick a program and become expert at using it.
  • Special-purpose software – need to design an anchor? Hilti Profis will help you immensely. Have a single composite steel beam to size? RAM SBeam can’t be beat. There are many trustworthy, simple tools to help with routine design chores. Never let them replace engineering judgment; always find ways to check the results by hand or against a table in the manual.
  • Dropbox – all of the project files in my office are stored and shared with two other offices effortlessly via Dropbox. The best feature: unlimited version history. Saved over that important file? No worries – a few clicks and the previous version is back.
  • Workflowy – the newest addition to my toolbox. This online list tool stores my notes and to-do lists for most of my active projects and allows me to easily share them with coworkers.

Those are a few of my favorite tools. How about you? What do you find useful and why?

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2 Responses to A Structural Engineer’s Toolbox

  1. Colm says:

    Hi Daniel, this is interesting and I will be walking around for the remainder of the day with an Elton John song in my head. good luck on your latest endeavors.

  2. astrohfiziks says:

    I just stumbled upon your blog here; great!

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